Vintage Rewind: Korg Mono/Poly

Bridging the gap between monosynth and polysynth, the Korg Mono/Poly was an often-overlooked beast with two heads. Dave Gale passes ‘Go’ and reflects on this analogue classic…

Here’s a curious one. You want to buy a synth, but you cannot make up your mind whether to buy a good monosynth, or hold out for that polysynth – which, creatively, might offer more across the board. Had you been chewing on that little conundrum between 1982 and 1984, you may well have ended up with a brand-new Korg Mono/Poly.

A roll of the dice

First things first, this synth is a bit of a powerhouse. Essentially, it can operate in two modes, which – you might have guessed – would be either monophonic or polyphonic. Starting with the latter, the four true VCOs all have their own settings and parameters, so for a true poly experience, you would need to set all of the oscillators to the same pitch and wave choice in order to play chords.

In turn, these four VCOs would sum to feed the 24dB/octave low-pass filter, meaning that the individuality of the oscillators merged into a single stream at this point. The same can be said when it comes to the VCA envelope, where a normal four-stage ADSR looks after all duties, across all voices, with a second ADSR envelope for control of filter cutoff, and more.

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So far, so good – but it’s fair to say that being used polyphonically was never the strongest suit for the Mono/Poly. It’s probably better to think of this classic as a huge monosynth, with benefits. Once placed in mono Unison mode, the oscillators can be stacked, with each oscillator offering control of pitch range, tuning, wave selection and volume, which makes for a formidable noise, by any standard.

VCOs – Four VCOs in one tone? The forerunner to the Supersaw crown, with plenty of control of each and every oscillator, summed to a single source.

A case in point: when I was recently reviewing a new synth with mono credentials (and a good machine, too), a friend of mine decided to start noodling with the machine on review. By way of comparison, I fired up the Mono/Poly, and just played a single note. The look on his face, as my friend turned around to see which sonic machine had just obliterated the synth which was in for review, was pretty telling.

Now, you could say this was a very unfair comparison, mainly because the one element in the armoury of the Korg is that it had four stacked and detuned VCOs, compared to only two on the current model being reviewed. It’s just that more VCOs generally makes for a bigger, fruitier noise, and that’s the wonder of the Mono/Poly… but there is far more on offer.

Supersaw us

The Roland JP8000/8080 is often credited as the first machine to put the Supersaw on the map. In essence, this is a regular Sawtooth, which is detuned to create a timbre which sounds large and thick. This is thanks to the wonders of detuning, but it’s also down to being in the right place at the right time, as the music of the 90s started to embrace this sort of timbre.
The Mono/Poly was able to pull off this trick, too, and with a multitude of wave types: but being from around 10 years earlier, it was way ahead of its time. (It’s fair to say that other machines, from the likes of Oberheim, were also able to pull similar stunts.)

Starting with VCO 1, this would be your main oscillator and the place to begin for the purposes of tuning and mono timbre creation. Bringing additional VCOs in to play, tuning can then be tweaked to suit, along with volume; meaning that, in line with other synths from the time, it was possible to place a sub-like tone an octave below, and add the desired volume to suit your needs. But the big trick comes with the global Detune pot, which will apply a liberal amount of detuning across the oscialltors, according to how far you spin the dial. Instant, thick, super-wave timbres come falling from the Mono/Poly with such ease that it would be tempting to use it in this manner at every available opportunity, but yet more awaits us…

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In common with the era’s other analogue synths, effects were not included (although you could be forgiven for considering the chorus on the Roland Junos as being part of the sound and makeup). So the Effects On/Off button was always something of a misnomer. It actually relates to X-Mod and Sync, which are hardly what you might call conventional effects, but boy, are they both highly effective. Both can be routed in two ways, offering either a Single or Double mode, with the latter displaying far more potency. The Sync would stand up well against any Moog, particularly when resonated using the filter. Unlike conventional Moog-style Ladder filters, there is far less low-end dropout with the Mono/Poly, once the resonance is cranked.

FX – “They’re FX Jim, but not as we know it!” The Effects section gives access to Cross Modulation and Sync; Key Assign selects the flavour of mode.

Alongside these wondrous sonic effects, Korg offers plenty of other modulation-routing options, from both LFO and the second (filter assigned) ADSR envelope, and you’ll find plenty of other highly usable contributions, in the shape of a separate white-noise channel and portamento control. Keeping up with the Joneses saw Korg place an Arpeggiator next to the Effects section, with the speed controlled via a second routable LFO; meaning that modulating elements such as Pulse Width can be bought into easy tempo synchronisation with any arpeggiating sequence. Sensibly, the arpeggiator is also clockable, via a jack input on the rear.

The final coup comes from the Key Assign section; on the face of it, this is the location where you switch from Mono/Unison mode to Polyphonic mode, which it certainly is, but you’ll also find a Chord Memory operation, allowing for the programming of chords to be replayed at the press of a single key. But my favourite would be using the Arpeggiator in Unison mode, with Sync in play, only to then hit the Poly button and see all of the oscillators cycle, in sequence, creating some very weird and wonderful tonal and timbral effects, which you just can’t do elsewhere – at least not easily and like this.

The Mono/Poly holds its sonic territory incredibly well, and is very different from other vintage machines, unless you want to spend considerably more. It sounds huge, but can also sound considered and thoughtful, in the right setting. It’s become a firm favourite in my regular armoury of monosynths, with a thickness of texture that’s hard to obtain elsewhere. What’s not to love about a monosynth with four VCOs?

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